Yosemite on screen
Can't get reservations to visit Yosemite? Take an armchair trip with films listed in Around the World in 80 More movies
Free Solo, 2018, with Alex Honnold heading up the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan sans rope. Backed by National Geographic, filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi won the year’s Best Documentary Oscar by following the amazing ambition of world class climber Honnold, who offered no guarantee of success and at least a year’s setback when one rope-freeclimbing attempt failed. But Honnold stuck to it, using only finger and toe holds to scale more than 3,000 feet of the world’s most challenging rock. Fear inducing? Well, one sequence reveals an MRI scan showing Honnold’s brain works differently from most peoples’ and fails to respond normally to frightening images. He acknowledges his anomalies, though he fails to fully understand them. Introverted by nature, Honnold opened himself up to filmmakers, expressing conflicts about their project’s impact on existential aspect of his goal, while acknowledging the attention(and resulting money) fed other needs. A candid portrait of a phenomenal athlete, the project highlights Yosemite Valley’s stunning beauty and such landmarks as Half Dome and El Capitan. Honnold also appears in the 2014 documentary on Yosemite climbers, Valley Uprising, full of imagery inspiring travelers to visit the national park and see its beauty for themselves. It might motivate some to take up climbing—but not me. I felt enough
terror looking down a narrow rock path on the Cloud’s Rest trail—which by Honnold standards resembles a good place to tap dance or take a nap. Yosemite climbing also shows up in 1989’sStar Trek V—The Final Frontier as the original Captain Kirk relaxes by climbing El Capitan and Inspiration Point. Not the strongest franchise entry, the film features impressive location work in areas within driving reach of Yosemite, including tufa formations known as the Trona Pinnacles at the dry Searles Lake stepping in as a planet called Shakari.
High Plains Drifter, 1971, with Clint Eastwood righting wrongs in a strange, high Sierra town. People like me drive to Yosemite from Reno, where we go by Mono Lake, located a mere 13-miles from the Park entrance. With strange tufa-rock formations jutting up from shallow, saline water reflecting turquoise colors from the sky, Mono calls out to cinematographers and suits this surrealistic story about a town with a secret. No permanent development mars the landscape, forcing the production company to build a fictional town called Lago. Eastwood told me he wanted to film at Pyramid Lake north of Reno in Nevada, another lake that startles with its odd juxtaposition of bright colors in a desert landscape. Despite my Nevada biases ,I admit Mono looks phenomenal in this memorable piece where Eastwood spins off his Spaghetti Western persona during a violent round of vengeance.
High Sierra, 1941, with robber Humphrey Bogart escaping to the rugged mountain range that crosses into Yosemite. Co-written by John Huston and directed by Raoul Walsh, the combination of gangster and film noir elements holds up well; predictable by genre standards but featuring top-notch talent. Death Valley National Park and such California classics as Lone Pine and its Whitney Portal Road give the film extra intensity. The story appeared later under different titles (I Died a Thousand Times, Colorado Territory) at other locations.
The Long, Long Trailer, 1954 with Lucy and Desi seeing Yosemite wonders on a road trip. The story goes that producers feared no one would pay to watch Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on big screens since the comedy duo appeared for free every week on television. Audiences proved movie moguls wrong and made the comedy into a hit. Unlike television sets of the day, film provided color and the chance to see Lucy’s dynamic red hair. Color also showcased scenic wonders along Sierra Nevada highways and through a tunnel opening onto Yosemite’s iconic valley vista with El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. Yosemite Falls show off, too.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975, with English knights looking for a holy relic. Well, of course this British classic has nothing to do with Yosemite, but why resist another chance to include it in a travel piece (see Volume 1, Around the World in Eighty Movies chapters on Peru and Scotland). A low budget barely allowed the movie to meet its costs in Scotland, let anywhere in the United States. But Pink Floyd, George Harrison, and other musicians provided enough funds to allow footage of Yosemite Valley into the film, the National Park serving as establishing shots for the “dark Forest of Ewing” as Sir Robin rides from Camelot, accompanied by malignant minstrels singing some nasty lyrics.